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The Irkeshtam crossing to China

From Sary-Tash onwards the quality of the road declines appreciably and even in a 4x4 it can take 3-4 hours to reach the border from Sary-Tash, and much longer in one of the scrap-iron trucks that lumber up and down this road. Leaving the village behind, the road slowly climbs up from the Alay valley over a 3,536m pass, before winding downhill to the river basin that has the dreary hamlet of Irkeshtam and the Chinese border beyond. In snow, the road is reduced to a single track, which means that if a truck breaks down - highly likely - then all other transport is forced to wait behind. The Kyrgyz checkpoint is reached at the bottom of the road from the pass. There is a rugged no man's land of around 10km between the borders and, for those travelling independently, it is necessary to hitch across this in whatever transport is available.

It must be said that the border guards on the Kyrgyz side are not the best ambassadors for their profession and, coming from China especially, they may try to extract bribes from travellers or insist that there is a fine to pay for not having a 'health certificate'. Obviously, they have the upper hand in this sort of situation but, as with everything else, bargain.

Close to the Kyrgyz border post is a trucker's cafe and basic gostinitsa but, given the drunken and confrontational atmosphere of the place, it is really not recommended. A little better are some of the trailers further down where a cheap bed for the night is also a possibility. Better still is not to stay here at all, but for those travelling independently that requires good timing and a certain element of luck.

On the other side of no man's land, Chinese customs is altogether more organised than back at the Kyrgyz post and the officials here are normally polite but thorough. Luggage has to be taken to a hut for examination. Kyrgyz luggage is normally more rigorously searched than that belonging to travellers, although great interest is often taken in Western reading material like guide books. Maps are sometimes confiscated, so it is best to hide these.

From here, it is another 4km to the second Chinese post, which has a large immigration building. Luggage has to be taken inside to be x-rayed, immigration forms completed and passports stamped. Taxi drivers usually hang around outside to offer onward rides to Kashgar, but they tend to drive a hard bargain. From Chinese immigration it is about 3 hours to Kashgar from here, and the road is excellent in comparison to the Kyrgyz side of the border.

As with the crossing at the Torugart Pass, problems can arise because of unforeseen circumstances: power cuts that result in Chinese computers not working; broken-down vehicles impeding progress; extra-long lunch hours and unexpected holidays that mean that one or both sides of the border have closed for the day.

Good timing is crucial because of the different time zones that each side operates by. The Chinese authorities observe Beijing time, which is 2 hours ahead of Kyrgyz time. The Chinese post is supposedly open from 09.00-11.00, 12.00-14.00 and 16.00-18.00, and closed for lunch between 14.00-16.00 (12.00-14.00 Kyrgyz time). The Kyrgyz border opens at 08.30 and it is usually possible to cross between 09.00 and 12.00 travelling in the direction of China. Arriving even minutes after midday can mean having to spend the night at the border, although conflicting reports tell of travellers having passed through as late as 14.30. Going through all the border posts can take anything between 4-6 hours. Coming from China, it is possible to cross into Kyrgyzstan between 11.00-18.00 (Beijing time) apart from during the lunch break period between 14.00-16.00.

The Irkeshtam crossing is technically open all year round, although there is the potential for it to be closed by heavy snowfall from time to time. It is closed on Kyrgyz and Chinese public holidays (check Torugart Pass) and at weekends.

Considering the problems that can occur with both the Torugart and Irkeshtam crossings into China, the question remains: given a free choice, which is the better of the two? Until recently, there was no choice in the matter as Irkeshtam was closed to foreign travellers until 2002. Unlike Torugart, Irkeshtam needs no special permit or prior arrangement of transport to meet travellers on the other side of the border, and this could be seen as a distinct advantage, as it allows for more flexibility of plans. There is no simple answer but common wisdom seems to dictate that if you have sufficient money but a tight schedule, it may be best to travel to China via the Torugart Pass; with plenty of time at your disposal but less money, take your chances with Irkeshtam.

Getting there Buses running from Osh to Kashgar (US$55) take around 24 hours and leave on Wednesday and Sunday nights from Osh's New Bus Station. It is possible to book a seat the day before leaving a small deposit, paying the US$55 on the day of departure. This is a Chinese sleeper bus with bunks, and locals will compete for the lower bunks, although the upper ones are fine. The bus is supposed to leave at 20.00 but will more likely depart between 22.00-22.30 to arrive at the border around 08.00. Bribes may be collected from passengers at some stage in the proceedings, but generally locals have a much rougher time of it than Western travellers. Border proceedings will take up to 6 hours in total. To speed things up, it is possible to take a taxi from the Chinese side into Kashgar, which will shave a couple of hours off the total journey time.

Coming the other way, buses from Kashgar leave on Mondays and Tuesdays and cost US$50. There have been incidents in which Kashgar bus station staff have refused to sell bus tickets to foreigners; if this happens a local travel agent can be employed to purchase them.

The main problem with travelling on the bus is that, coming either way, it passes through the best of the scenery in the hours of darkness. A way round this is to travel the stretch between Osh and Sary-Tash in daylight by bus or taxi, stay the night in Sary-Tash, then, early the next morning, hitch a lift to Irkeshtam, cross the border then take a taxi from the Chinese side. This is, of course, fraught with uncertainty, but it is certainly more adventurous and may or may not prove to be fun. The real limiting factor is reaching the Irkeshtam border in time to get through (12.00 Kyrgyz time). Traffic from Sary-Tash is sporadic and the trucks are quite slow so, in doing this, it is essential to be prepared for an unplanned overnight stay at the Irkeshtam border.

For some idea of prices: taxis from Osh to Sary-Tash are around 1,200-1,500som (300-400som per seat in shared taxis); a lift in a truck to Irkeshtam is 100-200som. Jeeps to Irkeshtam from Osh (from the jeep stand on Alisher Navoi) cost between US$100-150. Taxis from the Chinese border to Kashgar are US$10-15 per person. Trucks across no man's land probably will not charge anything.